What’s In a Name?

Recently I eMailed my local writers’ group (Mid-Michigan Romance Writers of America) and joked about how sometimes we writers get our characters’ names mixed up. For the last two months I’ve been writing almost constantly to finish my newest book for Sourcebooks – LOGAN’S LADY. In the midst of that, I had to stop and work on edits to my March book for Amazon, A WARRIOR’S PROMISE. The heroine in WARRIOR is named Claire – and in LOGAN’S LADY the heroine is named Elizabeth.

In proofreading LOGAN’S LADY, I noticed that in a few places I used the name Claire instead of Elizabeth for the heroine! I realized that the section of LOGAN’S LADY where those mistakes were made happened when I was also proofreading A WARRIOR’S PROMISE. So my brain sometimes caused my fingers to type “Claire” instead of “Elizabeth,” even though as I wrote, I was “seeing” Elizabeth.

Sound crazy? It’s not uncommon for writers. I’m no expert on how our brains work, but for some reason the name “Claire” came out much easier than “Elizabeth.” Maybe that’s because “Claire” is just easier and simpler to say and spell. Who knows?

As I was writing this blog, I also thought of something else related to names – how do we writers pick the names we use for our heroes and heroines? Because we write romance, for the most part we have brave, hunky, alpha heroes – and for some reason hunky heroes seem to require one-syllable names with a “tough” sound to them. Some of mine are Clint, Jake, Zeke, Luke, Logan, Blake, Lloyd, Chase, Buck, Sage, Colt, Nathan (Nate) and many more. For me a solid one-syllable name brings forth the vision of a tall, strong, macho man. (I know – Logan is two syllables, but it’s a tough-sounding name, and when you say it, it comes out quick and hard, almost with a one-syllable sound to it.)

As far as names for heroines, we also want to make them fit the independent, strong, feisty women we write about. I’m not sure how it would work for me for contemporary women, because a lot of contemporary names are too … I don’t know … frivolous? They just don’t show me a strong woman. For me, names that end in “y,” like Tiffany, Chrissy and Debby, bring forth the vision of someone cute and clueless. (My apologies to anyone with those names. I am talking from a writers’ POV – so it doesn’t mean I have anything against those names in real life.) I would prefer names like Blaire, Carmen, Lora, Anna, Beth, Christine, Lauren, and Sarah – no “y’s” at the end. Or, of course, I could use the full name that some of those “y” nick-names come from, Christine and Deborah.

Because I write history, I sometimes use a name that would be more unfamiliar today but sounds like a good fit for a pioneer woman – like Abigail, Anna, Miranda, Elizabeth, Mary, Claire, Grace and Joline. Sometimes I do put that “y” at the end of their name as a nick-name (Abigail became Abbey – Miranda became Randy), but the base name has a strong feel to it, and usually the nick-names come from the virile men who love them. Joline (the heroine in MONTANA WOMAN), became “Jo” – a masculine, strong-sounding name for a woman who trekked to Montana all by herself to claim land under the Homestead Act.

And then there are those names most of us would never use simply because as contemporary people, they just sound too old-fashioned, like Ethel, Dora, Harriet, and Irma. I just don’t “see” a heroine in those names. However, I have used some of the above names for secondary characters in my books because they certainly were more common in “olden days.”

Of course, we all have names we will never use in our books because they remind us of someone we don’t like. It’s too bad, but we are all guilty of it. And sometimes a name I choose begins to feel less and less right as I keep writing the story. No explanation for that, but sometimes that original name just doesn’t fit the heroine I started out with. She somehow changed – or her background changed – or she grew much stronger or weaker, and suddenly the name just doesn’t fit. So there have been times when I’ve had to go back and change a name. This can also happen with the hero’s name.

What’s in a name? A lot - sometimes! You have to feel comfortable with the names you are using in order to write a good story, or you won’t be able to delve deeply enough into the character because the name will bother you. Heck, I don’t even use my own first name! My first name is Frances, but for some reason I was called by my middle name, Rosanne, since day-one, so I grew up with it. I’m glad, because I am not fond of the name Frances anyway, so I have always gone by my middle name. When I have a doctor's appointment and they come out and call “Frances Bittner,” it always bugs me and I tell them rather defensively, “I go by Rosanne.” Just a “me” thing, I guess.

There are so many facets to writing a good book, and many of them come right back to the author herself feeling comfortable with the plot line, with the genre itself, with the hero and heroine (and that includes giving them names that “fit”), with how the characters behave, their looks, their background, the choices they make in the story, their strengths and weaknesses. Getting it all right isn’t always easy – in fact, it’s almost never easy. Location, timing, descriptions of surroundings, clothing, facial features, secondary characters – it’s all building material for the finished book. And just the right names are important to starting the story and getting involved with and loving the characters from the beginning.

One other problem that came up in the conversation with my Mid-Michigan RWA friends was – do you ever use the same hero/heroine’s name twice – i.e. in two different books. Yes, that has happened to me. How can it not, after so many books? Elizabeth is one of them. But as long as a name isn’t used for two different stories right in a row, readers are forgiving. After all, all of us have names that other people also have. Just be careful to wait 2-3 years and maybe 5-6 books later before you name a new heroine the same as one you’ve already used.

I can’t start a book without a title I love and that “fits” the story – and not without names for my hero and heroine that bring them to life for me because they, too, are a perfect fit. I don’t doubt it’s the same for most writers.

I invite those who read this to visit my Street Team – join up – and post hero and heroine names that you love! After 66 published books, I am running out of names!


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